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Aligning Perceptual Positions
“Perceptual Positions” has been an important and useful distinction in NLP, one that can be used to enhance our flexibility, wisdom and resourcefulness. There are three major perceptual positions:
SELF position is experiencing the world from my own position: I see and hear other people and the world around me from my own point of view, have my own feelings, etc. This is also called association.
OTHER position is experiencing the world literally from some other person's position. If I remember a conversation with a friend, I recall it as him, seeing and hearing events from his viewpoint, feeling his body feelings, etc.
OBSERVER position means experiencing the world from the outside, as an observer. If I do this, I literally observe myself and whatever situation I am in from the outside, as if seeing someone else. This is also called dissociation.
Brilliant people in many disciplines are able to shift their perceptual position flexibly, and this is a basis for their special skills. Most Practitioner Trainings include training in shifting from one position to another.
Many limitations have been usefully described as being “stuck” in one perceptual position. A phobia, for example, arises from being “stuck” in Self position. Phobics plunge right back into a terrible memory and panic. The phobia technique trains people to experience the traumatic event as an Observer. At the other extreme, people can be described as so dissociated into an Observer position that they no longer experience their own lives.
Co dependence has been described as being “stuck” in Other position. Co dependents report feeling the feelings of another person intensely.
While I have always found the perceptual positions model tremendously useful, I noticed several of my own experiences just didn't fit with the model. This led me to develop a new way of thinking about perceptual positions that has produced fascinating results.
We've all had the experience of asking someone to step out of an experience and dissociate into Observer position, and heard them say, “I can't do it; I still feel the feelings.” From the Basic Perceptual Positions model, we could describe this as, “They fell back into the experience,” or “They couldn't get out of the experience.”
One day, as I was doing an NLP process, I noticed that as I stepped out of the experience, into the Observer position, I felt my own feelings more strongly. Clearly, I wasn't “falling back into it,” or even “taking my feelings with me.” I was feeling my feelings much more intensely when I was watching myself from the outside. I thought, “That's strange,” and stepped back and forth several times, to be sure.
I began thinking, “What if it's not that limitations arise out of being stuck in one perceptual position? What if limitations actually arise out of our representational systems being split in different perceptual positions at the same time?” For example, as I experience an event, I could be seeing out of my own eyes (Self position); I could be feeing the feelings of the other person (Other position); and I could be hearing an internal voice making comments from the outside (Observer position). In this example, each of my three representational systems would be in a different perceptual position.
This results in a new model for what to do. The goal now becomes aligning perceptual positions. This means having all three major representational systems in the same perceptual position, at the same time.
While this sounds obvious, and commonplace, in considerable research to date, we have found no one so far who has their perceptual positions fully aligned in situations of difficulty. Although aligning perceptual positions doesn't magically turn every difficulty into a wonderful event, it does get consistent, significant shifts toward resourcefulness, and sometimes it makes the crucial difference in whether another NLP pattern works or not. Thinking about our experiences in this way brings into awareness misalignments that were not obvious to us with the old model.
One NLP Practitioner who had been through many perceptual positions exercises reported that this process finally allowed him to completely be in Self position. “Before this, I felt like I was trying to get into Self position, but I couldn't stay there. I automatically moved out,” he said. When he aligned his Self Position, he felt a strong physiological flushing—a rush of heat—that let him know he was really in his own experience and feeling it. Another Practitioner reported having “boundaries issue” where she found herself falling into other people's feelings. After aligning her perceptual positions, she reported that this work had made more difference for her than any other work she had done with “boundaries.” Others have experienced perceptual shifts as striking as regaining hearing loss, recovering peripheral vision, and improving vision.
The transcribed example that follows provides a demonstration of the
The first thing Connirae does with Bob is find out how he naturally experiences the situation, before any changes are made. She will use this information for the alignment later in the process.
Bob: Visually, it's my perspective.
Connirae: NLP-trained people tend to give a label for which perspective it is, but we want to gather more detailed information. It turns out that our first impression of what we are doing is usually not precisely it. So, Bob, tell me exactly what you see. Where is the other person?
Bob: I'm seeing out of my own eyes. The other person is to the side (gesturing to his left).
Connirae: All right. This next question may sound a little strange, and that's okay. Check to find out if you are seeing exactly out of your eyes, or if it's as if your eyes have shifted slightly. Notice if your visual perspective is even slightly dislocated in any direction from your eyes—in front, behind, to one side, above, or below.
Bob: I'm looking from a little to my right (gesturing slightly to the right of his eyes and higher than eye level).
Connirae: OK. And are you looking from eye level, or is it higher or lower?
Bob: Actually, I think I'm looking from a little
higher than eye level.
Connirae: Now let's find out about what you hear. What sounds are you aware of when you think of the situation?
Bob: I'm aware of the dialogue.
Connirae: And where are you listening from?
Bob: It's as if I'm listening from way over there. (He gestures in front and to the right, about 15 feet away.)
Connirae: Do you hear what's actually going on, or is it some commentary about the situation?
Connirae: Tell me a couple of sample sentences of the commentary you're hearing.
Bob: “I'm really stupid. “can't believe this.”
Connirae: And where is the commentary voice coming from?
Bob: Around my head (gesturing close to his head, in a semi-circle around the back and sides).
Connirae: OK. So the commentary voice is coming from around your head, using the pronoun “I,” and you're listening from fifteen feet out to the side. Your voice is almost in Self position, and your ears are in Observer.
(Note: When Bob gestured to where he
was listening from, he indicated a spot where an Observer might stand
to observe the situation from the outside. However, his commentary
voice is very close to his own throat, which is where a Self position
voice would be speaking from.)
Connirae: Now let's find out about the kinesthetic system. Notice whose feelings you have, and where they are located.
Bob: They feel like they're my feelings (gesturing to the center of his chest).
Connirae: Are they right in the center, or are they slightly dislocated?
Bob: Right in the middle.
Connirae: So, feelings are in Self position.Aligning Observer Position
Connirae: The next step is to align the Perceptual Positions. We can align either Self or Observer Position first. With you, I'm inclined to align Observer position first, because you already have much of your awareness there, and because Self position looks quite unpleasant right now (Bob nods emphatically).Visual:
Connirae: I'll be inviting you to make some changes, and you can notice what happens in your experience when you do that. We'll start with Visual. Sometimes aligning one system allows other systems to change automatically.
First, let this whole scenario swing around (gesturing in a half-circle) so that you see Bob and the other person interacting out there in front of you. . . . Now you are in Observer Position, watching Bob and the other person. Make it so that both Bob and the other person are exactly the same distance from you as the Observer. You can also let these people move to eye level. (Bob's breathing, expression, and color change considerably.)
(To Audience, with a smile) In NLP, one of the skills we develop as practitioners is called “sensory acuity,” which means when someone's inner experience shifts, a trained observer will notice “subtle” external shifts.
Bob, what happened in your experience as you played around with that?
Bob: Most of the feelings drop out! There's a lot more clarity, a lot more sense of perspective and distance. It's more egalitarian.
Connirae: That makes sense. Before, more
than half of the available information was missing.
Connirae: Now that we've done the visual part, let's check the auditory, and find out if that's already done or if we still need to do more. As you look at them over there, notice whether your ears came over here also, and have already rejoined your body as the Observer.
Bob: Yes, I'm hearing from here now.
(When we make one change toward alignment, such as seeing both people at eye level, or equidistant, frequently other changes toward alignment just happen. As Connirae continues, she is sensitive to the fact that Bob's voices may already by more aligned. She continues to invite alignment wherever it has not yet occurred.)
Connirae: Great. Now, do you still have the commentary voice that was around your head? The one that said “I'm really stupid. I can't believe this?”
Bob: It's different.
Connirae: Okay. Where is the voice that's commenting now?
Bob: It's coming from in front of me. (Bob's gesture indicates that the voice is talking from about 2 feet in front of him.)
Connirae: The ideal location of the Observer voice works slightly differently for different people. Usually it comes from inside our body, as the Observer. So, Bob, let's find out if this will be useful for you. What happens if the voice commenting on the conversation comes from your throat as the Observer? . . . (Connirae gestures where the voice was, and moves her hand to indicate where the voice will go. She gives Bob a moment to notice what this shift is like.) Which do you like better?. . . What we want is a clean observer voice that allows you to take in data the most resourcefully.
Bob: This whole thing is so unfamiliar, I'm not sure. It's so different to have the sound coming from my throat!
Connirae: So, you can experiment with that a little more, and as it becomes more familiar, notice which way works better for you.
Bob: I think it's better from inside (he gestures toward his throat).
Connirae: And Bob, you can make sure this Observer voice is also using Observer pronouns. Rather than saying “I” and “you”, this voice will say “he”, “she”, and “they”. “They are doing this, she this, he that,” etc.
(Connirae allows time for Bob to listen to his voice stating observations using “he”, “she”, “they”, etc.)
Connirae: Now we'll do the kinesthetic part. As you look at them, equidistant from you, at eye level, and your internal voice is describing the situation using “he, she, they” pronouns, notice what feelings you have. Do you have any feelings left that really belong to one of the two people over there?
Bob: A little bit.
Connirae: Whose feelings are they?
Connirae: OK. (joking) Now, Bob might start being annoyed if you run around with his feelings! So just notice where in your body you have any remnant of his feelings. And when you're ready, let those feelings go back to him, over there. Schhoop!. . . (Connirae adds sounds effect as she gestures from where the feelings have been, toward the Bob out in front.) And notice what Observer feelings fill in place.
Bob: The world “vacuum” comes to mind.
Connirae: Is that resourceful for you, or are there some other feelings that would be more resourceful, while being neutral Observer feelings?
Bob: I think I want something a little more resourceful.
Connirae: So you can let that feeling fill in
now, and your unconscious mind can be a guide in what kind of feelings
begin to radiate and fill in, . . . with something more resourceful.
. . (Bob gains more skin color and looks more resourceful.)
Bob: It just said, “Be sure to have the flexibility to bounce back and forth between positions.”
Connirae: That's wise, and that's what we're getting to next. It's good for our unconscious to know that a clean Observer position is available to us as a resource. Having this can make it easier to align the Self position, because we know we can get back to Observer position whenever we want to. It's a position of safety and comfort we can go to at any time.Aligning Self Position
Now we'll align the Self position. First notice what it's like when you step into Self position. Notice what's different from before. . . . Are you seeing out of your own eyes?
Bob: I'm seeing exactly out of my eyes now.
Connirae: Is there any difference in how you see the other person from Self position now?
Bob: They're much clearer, and they're right in front of me.
Connirae: Good. Often the other person is clearer after aligning Observer position. Check your voice now, in this position. Do you have any internal dialogue?
Bob: I just hear the conversation. I hear the other person on the outside and me responding.
Connirae: Are you hearing from your own ears, already?
Bob: Yes. . . This is all very unfamiliar!
Connirae: And that's fine. . . . Now I want to be sure you have the choice of having internal dialogue in this position. So, notice what happens if you say on the inside, “I feel this. I think this. I want this.”
Bob: The voice is coming from my chest (speaking softly, smiling slightly). And some very powerful feelings come with it (gesturing across his whole torso, Bob's body is more relaxed than earlier, and has more skin color).
Connirae: Good. And this looks different
from before. In Self position, the voice is inside the body, from
the chest/throat area, and uses “I” pronouns.
Connirae: Is there any difference in the quality of your feelings now, compared to before we aligned these positions?
Bob: Yes, a dramatic difference! I have an awareness of my body, going out into my arms and legs, that wasn't there before.
Connirae: Great. Now pop back into Observer position, and notice if anything is different in Observer position now that you have been in an aligned Self position. . .
Bob: Yes, the main difference is that Bob's
voice in the interaction sounds very different.
OK. Now that we've aligned Self and Observer positions, it is
possible to go into Other position and gather uncontaminated data.
Before aligning Self and Observer positions, it's very difficult if
not impossible, to gather clean data about the Other. If we aren't cleanly
sorted ourselves, we tend to carry bits of ourselves into the Other
Position and strongly color what we learn about the other person.
Bob: That's really different. As her, I feel confused. That's kind of a revelation to me.
Connirae: Good. . . And. . . we need to remember
that this is still a hallucination—a guess. It's our
experience of being them, not their experience of being them.
The more we align our perceptual positions, the more accurate our guesses
Becoming aligned is different for each person. Once Bob's Observer position was aligned, his Self position was automatically aligned. Usually, it's still necessary to align each representational system in Self position: to invite the person to move the viewpoint into exactly their own eyes, to invite the voice to come exactly from their own throat, the listening to come exactly into the ears, feelings to be centered in the body, etc.
We've found many interesting ways people can be misaligned. In
one of our workshops, a man named Dan noticed that his point of view
moved in a circle around his eyes. When he discovered this, he said,
“Oh, that's so interesting! That really fits, because I've never
wanted to let anyone pin me down.”
Our inner sensing configuration is always a reflection of how we experience ourselves and interact with our world. It is a direct expression of our many beliefs about ourselves and others. As such it gives us a powerful window to notice and transform aspects of our experience to become more resourceful and whole as human beings.
Some of us trained in NLP may have spontaneously done a few of these kinds of interventions before. However, thinking of it in this new way—that it's about aligning our inner experience including all of our representational system—means I notice things I never would have noticed before. Practitioners, Master Practitioners and Trainers who were already experienced with perceptual positions are also reporting this.
A useful mindset when exploring aligning perceptual positions is to assume that whatever inner configuration we are now using, we originally developed as a solution to something. It was our being's best wisdom in a difficult situation. For instance, when someone is part inside and part outside of their body, it may have been an attempt to dissociate from an overwhelming situation when they were so young they didn't have the ability to fully dissociate. Whatever we are currently doing originally served some useful intent. Aligning the perceptual positions offers another choice that will “stick” whenever it is a better solution. We invite you to explore this model gently, with respect for any objections and full attention to ecology. The process lives up to its potential when we have an attitude of curiosity and discovery, noticing what happens when we allow our configuration to be aligned. We can trust our being to keep any arrangement that is, for us, a “better solution.”
This article is just a brief introduction. This method can actually
be taken to quite a bit of depth—the process of alignment can
continue. One of my workshop participants who was an experienced meditator,
commented that he experienced the method as a direct way of accessing
the kind of “clean” and empty state that he reached through
meditation. In this brief demonstration with Bob, I aligned the
most obvious things. With “advanced” use, we find more
subtleties to align. There are more criteria for alignment, unique ways
to work with people who have different configurations, ways to honor
ecological considerations within the process, etc. (See
reference materials below and trainings for more information.)
Aligning Perceptual Positions Resources:
©2000-08 Steve Andreas